cantilevered arch via pininterest

Imitation, Innovation and the 700th Cantilever

After seeing the 700th gratuitous cantilever, I ask: Why do architects follow the leader? Whether it’s a “Kahn knock-off” or a “Mies knock-off” or now a “Hadid knock-off,” why has this phrase been attached to every imitator by every detractor for the last hundred years?


It’s because as a group, architects are terrified of being lame. In school, the “loser” students sulked away after being torched by critics who loved to pile on. We all like to pile on. It’s one of our least attractive human traits. The cheapest way to avoid being a loser is to be a poser. Posing—learning a given aesthetic and then using it, shamelessly, is a great way to grow early on—but it’s also an expedient way to sidestep the harder questions of innovation and belief.


Clearly the gratuitous application of the familiar detail is an easy out. The need for many architects to see a fashionable meme and jump on it, gives cover to the uncertain. Attempting the unattempted—authentic innovation—takes courage. Are you posing? Are you imitating?


It’s easier to point fingers and shame the imitator. History shows the innovators were reacting to something they bridled against. Sometimes it worked—so many great architects seized the initiative of Frank Lloyd Wright who first created an early 20th century improvement on the American house. Wright led and architects, academics, and critics followed. Innovation is necessary, or architecture becomes inert while the world moves on, but pandering imitation betrays the creative spirit. When every American car had aerodynamic fins in the 1950’s and every career woman had padded shoulders in the 1980’s, good ideas were replaced with thoughtless superficial replication.


Yet a short history shows how appealing imagery-launched evolutions are and how often they have enriched the culture. When Wright broke rules with the Winslow House in the late 19th century, he lit the Prairie School fire, but more importantly, he started an aesthetic revolution. When most were still lost imitating others, he saw clearly by rejecting the past and fully embracing his gut: “A great architect is not made by way of a brain nearly so much as he is made by way of a cultivated, enriched heart.” Wright kept changing, evolving and experimenting up until his death.


Modernism also rejected the easy answer of imitation. This was not mere “tweaking”— these were angry rejectionists who desired to reform the world, dividing all aesthetics into heroic Modern and lily-livered Bourgeois. Like orthodox religion, this new view rejected alternatives, but made the revealed “truth” of its insights into an easy-to-imitate “newness.” Corbusier declared, “A house is a machine for living in.” Machines have no style or color. The Modernists showed there was, despite rhetoric, a style to it: unsentimental, but inimical. An entire generation of libertines railed against the shallowness of yesteryear’s perfected styles and ended up shunning ornament and finding truth in the absence of color. That break is still with us today.


When Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown published Learning From Las Vegas, they encouraged architects to stop and look around. They created a sense that we did not operate in a vacuum, and this inspired many to experiment. For a couple of decades it became legitimate to “quote” the very historic memes Modernism held in contempt, creating commentary within the context of “new” architecture. Thousands of people with Xerox machines designed Postmodernist buildings in blissful replication. “Modernism is about space,” Venturi said. “Postmodernism is about communication. You should do what turns you on.” 


Those who mimic both perfect and ruin inspiration. But talent and drive can make any aesthetic glow. Most architects seize on popular directions and use them to propel their own careers, often with thin results. But then, you can see the joy and energy of those who play on a riff. When someone creates truly new music, others can rightfully riff off on the artistic risk and might even find greater success.


Pat answers to why the High Line thrilled, or everyone came to love Maya Lin’s abstraction, are left to the critics. As an architect I am trying, everyday,  to answer the small, medium and large questions of client, employees, governments—all in the swirl of the site, function, and vision. Sometimes the line between face-saving imitation and adaptive innovation gets awfully blurred.


Zaha Hadid exploded expectations—her unbuilt  “Peak Competition” influenced all subsequent work—right up to the cantilever mania that continues to flood our screens.  She designed outside the architectural establishment in the 1990’s – and her work has become a beacon for those who love abstract expressionism. “Abstraction” is inherently “new” if the past is bypassed. Hadid’s success encouraged others to follow suit, fostering a slew of  young formalists. That formalism is based, elementally, on the rejection of the original essence of building. “I don’t think that architecture is only about shelter, is only about a very simple enclosure,” Hadid said. “It should be able to excite you, to calm you, to make you think.”


But the 21st Century is different. There are movements that simply eschew “ownership” of an aesthetic, rendering the “knock-off” irrelevant. The “new” Classicist Movement is not new. An invigorated  group of classical educators mostly found at Notre Dame, Colorado and Charleston, are  embracing the past, led by among others Leon Krier, who was blunt in describing the failures of the Modern Movement. The problem was Le Corbusier was a genius and an enormous artist, but he tried to resolve problems to which there is no solution,” Krier said. “So the idea to demolish the centre of Paris in order to adapt it to the car—he drew it!—is something not even the most bloody dictators conceived.”  Today this retro-movement looks at new problems by applying the past, legitimizing the foundational devil of the Modern Movement, which insisted, for over a century, that new problems, new materials, and new technologies require “newness” to legitimately answer the question of architecture.


Despite the obvious flaws of the duplicators, there is in fact a “new-ness” that can be felt, but is often difficult to define. In his 2004 article Architecture of Change, designer Richard Foy actually sees the “new” in the radical technology shift. “The Architecture of Change: It frees us from buildings and environments that are bland boxes of immutable materials and mute walls. It enables us to design with more emotion, deliver more experiences driven by content and meaning.”


Marc Kushner is a young architect, who advocates that new technology demands going beyond the 20th century assumptions of design. He’s the founder of  Architizer: a huge digital platform of newness. More than perhaps any architect of his generation, Kushner sees the value of social media: riffing on popular culture and instant expression, there is no space for the “knock-off,” it’s all good if it’s fresh: “Architecture is on the verge of a Golden Age, but it feels like a catastrophe to the established critics and tastemakers whose power is being wrested away by the public—the people who actually use architecture. This fundamental shift in architecture is happening in social media.”


For Kushner, social media creates a whole new world that does not play by the old rules of “style” or “elite” value judgments. In this world the vox populi defines the street cred in architecture: not disembodied “tastemakers.” That might be, but I see far more humans, even architects, embracing the average, safe and expected than the wacky or the innovative. (Exactly as it was in Wright’s time.)


Architects are desperate to wrap themselves in the borrowed cloaks of genius—to be verifiably hip. Being mocked as “lame” is terrifying to those who care, so imitation and hacking minimizes the potential to be called out. That artistic safety was once provided by riffing on approved imagery. In the new world of social media, the dreaded but defendable “knock-off,” the 701st cantilever, seems easier to execute with impunity.


The sad but valiant truth is, few have courage enough to cast a blind eye to the future without a firm grip on the right now. Few want to risk looking foolish or prematurely smart; fewer clients still want to pay for that “innovation.”


Are you following your heart, or is inspiration flickering on your laptop?


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